|Battle of Port-en-Bessin/Operation Aubery|
|Part of Normandy Landings|
An example of a German FLAK ship which inflicted heavy losses on the Commandos during the assault.
|United Kingdom||Nazi Germany|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Lieutenant Colonel CF Phillips||Dietrich Kraiß|
47 (Royal Marine) Commando |
328 during assault
Infantry of 352nd Division|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Port-en-Bessin took place between 6–7 June 1944, at a small fishing harbor west of Arromanches in Normandy. The village was situated between two landing zones, Omaha Beach the V American Corps sector, and Gold Beach the XXX British Corps sector. An objective during Operation Overlord, the heavily fortified village was assaulted and captured by No. 47 (Royal Marine) Commando during Operation Aubery.
Joining Gold Beach and Omaha Beach
The small fishing port was an important objective, firstly because it was required as the Normandy terminal for PLUTO - the Pipe Line Under The Ocean - which ran from the Isle of Wight to France and was intended to supply a large proportion of the petrol which would sustain the Allied armies in Normandy. The port also lay at a strategic juncture between the Americans at Omaha Beach and the British Gold Beach. In the coming days the port would serve as a command post of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the Allied Ground Commander of the invasion forces.
Invasion of Normandy
47 commando embarked on 3 June 1944 and left the Solent in two ships on 5 June. At 5am on 6 June, eight miles off the Normandy coast, they were loaded into 14 Landing Craft Assault (LCA) - each carrying 30 marines and headed for Gold Beach. Soon the big guns at Le Hamel and at Longues had the range of the approaching LCAs.
Far out from the shore one LCA was hit and sank: 12 of the marines were killed or drowned, 11 were seriously injured but reached the shore. As the other LCAs moved in they had to cross a wide band of obstacles constructed from steel girders, many of which were tipped with mines. Unfortunately, the state of the tide was such that many of the obstacles were just covered as 47 RM Commando moved in and the LCAs passing over them were in great danger of being impaled on a steel girder and exploding a mine. Four of the other LCAs were impaled in this way and sank. Some of the occupants were killed.
Mustering on the beach 47 commando had already lost 28 killed or drowned, 21 wounded and 27 missing. In these sinkings many weapons and much other equipment, such as wireless sets, had been lost.
Reduced to 340 men the commando, under fire, now penetrated the enemy front line and embarked on a 12-mile march through enemy-held territory behind the German front line towards its objective.
One man was killed and 11 wounded during the march as several enemy positions were overcome. In these encounters some of the commando's lost weaponry was made good by the capture of German arms. The unit stopped for the night on a hill at Escures, a mile from Port-en-Bessin, and commenced its assault the next day. The port's outer defences consisted of an entrenched and concreted position just south of the port on the Bayeux Road, but the main defences were two heavily defended positions on the Western and Eastern Features, each rising to 200 feet on either side of the harbour, and the harbour area itself.
The defensive position on the Bayeux Road was charged and quickly overcome and its occupants captured. One troop was then detailed to attack the Western Feature. As the marines moved up the open slope of the Feature, rifle and machine-gun fire was directed at them and grenades thrown down on them. The slope was also mined and had a few hidden flame throwers. Using their field-craft to good effect, the marines had advanced more than halfway up the slope when disaster struck. The intelligence given to the marines was that the harbour was empty of any armed ships, but just before D-Day, two floating FLAK had moved into the harbour. They had a direct view of the marines on the slope. Opening fire they killed 12 and wounded 17 - more than half the troop - within a few minutes. The troop had to withdraw.
This disaster was further compounded when the commando's rear HQ was over-run and some of its members killed, wounded or captured. An enemy counter-attack across the Escures to Port-en-Bessin Road cut off the troop left to defend Escures. The commando's strength in the port was now down to 280, many of them wounded.
The enemy defences in the harbour area consisted of dispersed strong points. The marines, in the open, had now to attack heavily defended buildings. Gradually the harbour area was cleared but casualties were continuing to rise, the FLAK ships were still a threat, ammunition was running low, the marines were tiring and the Eastern Feature, as well as the Western Feature, were unconquered. The commando was now in a parlous position. The battle was going very badly.
Marine Captain Cousins then led reconnaissance patrol during which he discovered that leading up the side of the Eastern feature was an undefended zigzag path. With darkness falling Cousins led a party of 4 officers and 25 men up the hill unobserved, then yelling, screaming and firing his men charged in a desperate assault on the Feature. The defenders were thrown into confusion. The Marines next encountered a concrete bunker which Cousins, with four men, rushed. Cousins was killed by a grenade and the men accompanying him wounded, but the bunker was captured.
The group, outnumbered four to one by the enemy, then fought their way up the Feature against the concrete, entrenched, mine and barbed wire defenses above them. Their determination prevailed. One enemy position after another was captured and before the night was out the whole of the Eastern Feature was in the commando's hands. The next day the commando over-ran the Western Feature and re-occupied Escures.
By the 8 June No. 47 had been reduced to a strength of approx. 200 officers and other ranks. The battalion was ordered to move into the area of Douvres-la-Délivrande and were then ordered to move east of the Orne River to reinforce the 6th Airborne Division.
In the whole operation there were 136 casualties, 46 killed and 70 wounded. General Sir Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps in Normandy, wrote of 47 Royal Marine Commando's capture of Port-en-Bessin: "It is doubtful whether, in their long, distinguished history, the marines have ever achieved anything finer."
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, historian and Director General of the British Political Warfare Executive during World War Two, described 47 RM Commando's performance as: ‘The most spectacular of all commando exploits during the actual invasion.’
And the military historian, Major General Julian Thompson, wrote: 'In my opinion the operation by 47 RM Commando at Port-en-Bessin was one of the great feats of arms of any unit, Royal Marines, Army, Navy or Air Force of any nation in the Second World War’.
The next day soldiers from the American 16th Infantry Regiment who had landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day moved through the coastal towns Huppain and eventually linked up with 47 Commando, joining together the British and American beaches.
The major American PLUTO terminal would be located at Cherbourg, however the town would not be finally captured until 30 June, so Port-en-Bessin would play an important role in supplying the allied army fighting in Normandy.
Allied forces included:
- 24th Lancers (British Armoured)
- 6th (1st Hussars Reserve) Armoured Regiment (Armoured)
- 90th (Royal Winnipeg Rifles) Militia Regiment (Infantry)
- The Canadian Scottish Regiment (Machine-Gun)
- "D-Day: Heroic battle in Port-en-Bessin". Daily Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/5354580/D-Day-Heroic-battle-in-Port-en-Bessin.html. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
- "John Forfar's D-Day: 47 Royal Marine Commando". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/53/a2579853.shtmll. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
- "Operation Aubery, the attack on Port-en-Bessin - 7 June 1944". 47 Royal Marine Commando Association. http://www.47commando.org.uk/800/Index800.html. Retrieved 7 May 2010.
- "Life through an enemy's lens: Former British commando reveals remarkable photos of Germans relaxing before battle found on camera he STOLE in daring WW2 raid". dailymail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2202688/Remarkable-photos-capture-Nazis-relaxing-battle.html. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
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